Dr Chris Pak is the Jacob Bronowski Award Lecture for Science and the Arts. This Award is in recognition of their cutting-edge work and committed public engagement efforts. Full details of the 2020 Award Lecture winners can be found here: www.britishscienceassociation.org/news/introducing-our-2020-award-lecturers

Written by Alan Barker, freelance writer

Dr Chris Pak is fascinated by terraforming. He thinks that science fiction is a kind of laboratory for thought experiments that might help us rethink our strategies about climate change, the environment and a whole lot more. 

What is terraforming?

It’s the process of adapting another planet to become habitable by humans. Probably the most famous recent example is Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy. Robinson imagines humans colonising Mars in ways that respond to catastrophic climate change on Earth. In the trilogy, Mars is colonised variously: industrial exploitation by multinational corporations, pastoral collectives, and by colonists from different cultures.

So we’re not talking just about planetary engineering?

Not at all. Terraforming is an infrastructural technology. But infrastructures aren’t just technological; they are also cultural. We can think of a culture as an infrastructure that sets conditions and possibilities on how we develop our relationship to nature. Robinson inherits a long cultural tradition, reworks it and re-examines it.

How far back does the tradition go?

The word ‘terraforming’ first appears in the 1940s, although Olaf Stapledon, back in 1930, had envisaged terraforming Venus in his book Last and First Men. In one way, the idea goes right back to Francis Bacon, whose New Atlantis in 1627 established the theme of exploiting nature for humanity’s benefit. In the nineteenth century, Thoreau and Emerson inspired an alternative environmental philosophy that emphasised conservation and preservation rather than exploitation. In the 50s, science fiction used the trope of terraforming to explore the dialectic between those two originary impulses. Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, Robert Heinlein’s Farmer in the Sky and Arthur C Clarke’s The Sands of Mars all explore terraforming and independence from Earth by intersecting colonialism with American pastoral.

How did this dialectic develop in the 60s and 70s? 

In 1962, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring brought environmental issues to international attention. So then, in the 1970s, terraforming starts to incorporate different environmental discourses: moving beyond preservation towards different relationships between humans and landscapes. Ursula Le Guin’s The Dispossessed, for instance, posits anarchism and libertarianism as alternatives to the instrumentalising imperialism of Frank Herbert’s Dune trilogy. Then, in the late 20th century, science fiction begins to connect all this to contemporary climate change. Terraforming is a very malleable concept.

How did you get interested in terraforming?

I’ve always been interested in landscape restoration and adaptation. I’ve always remembered conversations about land reclamation in Hong Kong, where I grew up. I distinctly remember that being connected to environmental issues. As I became interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror fiction, terraforming seemed to me to be useful for thinking about all sorts of contemporary issues.

Such as?

Well, ideas about how we relate to nature have implications about how we relate to other groups of people, for instance. Science fiction uses a kind of megatext: a repository of tropes and tools and strategies – like terraforming – which allow it to act as a kind of forum for competing ideas and values. And it can examine and revise these ideas over time. In that respect, it’s a bit like the scientific project itself: revision and redevelopment are part of the process. Science fiction is a kind of laboratory space that allows you to test ideas and hypotheses in fictional ways.

How does the tradition develop in the 21st century?

Writers have been reflecting on the idea of terraforming in a very self-conscious way. Robinson himself, for instance, in Aurora, suggests that terraforming might be an impossible strategy for the future of humanity.  Other writers have taken aspects of the terraforming tradition and reactivated them with different sets of values. Luiza Saima’s Everything You Ever Wanted is a story of failed colonisation. In Andrea Hairston’s Mindscape, an extra-terrestrial entity has divided the Earth up into zones, so refiguring the planet creates a complicated debate about cultural values. Adrian Tchaikovsky’s ongoing Children of Time Trilogy sees animals given sentience and intelligence, leading them to take the terraforming project in completely new directions. Tchaikovsky subjects the premises, not only of terraforming, but of our conception of animals and evolution, to an astonishing critique.

Where do you see your own work going?

I’d like to incorporate more of a focus on non-Anglophonic science fiction. I’m also interested in how the visual relates to landscape, in graphic novels, for instance, and games – the way games organise the logic of space, the boundaries they set for how we relate to that space. I’m fascinated by the connections between themes that scholarship might ordinarily treat in isolation; for instance, the human-animal connection – in nature documentaries and the like – and how it relates to land use. The present pandemic is a clear instance where we can relate how we organise physical space and animals in ways that have implications for human societies.

Can science fiction ever provide real answers?

Science fiction can provide a vicarious experience of crisis and of possibilities beyond that crisis. It can inform the ways we deal with huge political and material issues now: how we think about them, frame them and address them. The ideas we assume are contemporary are often shot through with the legacies of these historical debates. Science fiction brings out some of the implicit values we might not have considered, the assumptions we bring to these questions. Which means we can then challenge them.

Alan Barker is a writer, trainer and coach specialising in communication skills. He has been working with the British Science Association since 2015. Alan’s webinar, Storytelling for Scientists, is on the 3M YouTube channel.